You gotta serve somebody

One thing I’ve noticed while reading different translations of the Bible is how different one of Paul’s introductions often sounds despite the fact that the translation committees are all using (mostly) the same Greek manuscripts. Normally, Paul introduces himself as an Apostle (2 Corinthians 1:1, Galatians 1:1, Ephesians1:1, Colossians 1:1, 1 Timothy 1:1, and 2 Timothy 1:1). But elsewhere, in Romans 1:1, Galatians 1:10, Philippians 1:1, and Titus 1:1, Paul introduces himself with a different Greek word: doulos (pronounced “do-loss”). This is also the word the authors used to describe themselves in James 1:1, 2 Peter 1:1, Jude 1, and is even used to refer to all Christians in Revelation 1:1.

What I find interesting is that this word usually has two different translations:  bondservant or servant. In the English Standard Version, New American Standard Bible, New International Version, and King James Version all use the word “servant” or “bond-servant” and then they usually put “slave” somewhere at the bottom of the page as a footnote.) These are all considered fairly conservative translations. Yet in two of our more liberal translations, the New Living Translation and The Message, we find the word doulos translated a little accurately. They use the word “slave.” (The lesser-known Lexham English Bible also uses the word “slave.”)

So which is is? What are Paul, James, Peter, Jude, John, and all Christians? Are we servants or are we slaves? In The Gospel of God: An Exposition of Romans, R. C. Sproul helpfully writes:

In the Greek text, the word that the apostle uses is doulos which is not properly translated ‘servant’. A servant in the ancient world was a hired employee, a person who could come and go at will, who could resign from one job and seek employment elsewhere if so inclined. But a doulos was a slave owned by a kyrios, a master or a lord. Frequently in the New Testament this type of imagery is used to portray the relationship between Christ and his people: ‘You are not your own; you were bought at a price.’ Christians are those who belong to Christ. He is our Lord, he is our kyrios, he is our Master.
Paul will explain in the book of Romans that man, out of Christ, is in bondage to sin and a slave to his own evil impulses, inclinations and desires. This is man’s natural condition in the fallen state. Yet Paul wrote elsewhere that where the Spirit of the Lord is, where the Spirit of the kyrios is, where the Spirit of the Master is, there is liberty (2 Cor. 3:17). How are these truths to be reconciled?
Paul had learned that man is only free when he becomes a slave to Christ. Outwith Christ, he is a slave to sin; but when enslaved to Christ, he knows the royal liberation that only Christ can bring. Paul, in citing his own credentials, regards as his highest virtue that he is a slave of Jesus Christ.

In John 8:34, Jesus says that whoever sins is a slave to sin. Paul, James, Peter, Jude, and John all knew that the only way to become free from sin was to become slave to Christ (John 8:36). That’s why Paul the “slave” mentions that he is free in 1 Corinthians 9:1. As Bob Dylan once sang, “you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” The only question you can answer is who you’ll serve. Will it be a harsh taskmaster bent on your destruction? Or will it be a kind, gentle Lord?

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Jesus in Matthew 11:28–30.

  • James R

    Indeed, there is no form of non-service, either to the world or to ‘The Kyrios’. Part of what I’ve had to learn about this over the years is that being a ‘slave’ to the LORD is actually a good thing. It’s hard to hear a word like ‘slave’ without attaching negative connotations. But, just like when we read and better understand His commandments and love for His people, we realize that it’s all for our good, and that by being His ‘slave’, we live a better life by the commands of our Kyrios who knows better than we (obviosly!) about how to live life well and what is good for us all. That’s the kind of master we ought to be thankful to serve!